American craft beer wasn’t built on neighborhood taprooms and locally distributed six-packs. At least, not originally. For many of the early brewers in the craft beer movement, the drive to make craft beer was inspired by experiences with beer in the Old World. Whether it was from a motorcycle tour of ancient monastery breweries in Belgium and France or an unforgettable parade through the tents at Oktoberfest, American brewers have drawn heavy inspiration from their European experiences and work to recreate them at home.
Thomas Keim at Yoerg Brewing Company in St. Paul aims to bring that European inspiration back to Minnesota through an impressive import tap list in his brewpub—highlighting breweries that date as far back as 1050—alongside a taste of our state’s own history, too.
Keim fell in love with Old World beer when he was stationed in Germany as a young Army policeman from 1974–1976. He visited Augustiner-Bräu, a small Munich brewery established in 1328. He remembers excitedly, “The first time I had their helles, which is a golden lager, I thought it was the greatest beer I had ever tasted. And now 42 years later, it’s still the greatest light beer I’ve ever had.” He tried hundreds and hundreds of beers during that time of his life, even keeping a journal of them all.
Now, after a decades-long detour in the wine industry and years of working to get that Augustiner-Bräu Helles imported into the Minnesota market, he pours that memorable Munich beer in his own historical brewpub in St. Paul.
Despite the supreme reign of the IPA over the American craft beer market, Old World–style beers, such as Summit Keller Pils, Lift Bridge Farm Girl, Fair State Pils, and nearly the whole lineup at Schell’s, have a stronghold in Minnesotans’ beer fridges. Many brewers who belly up to a bar are not ordering the ultra-hopped IPAs or milkshake beers responsible for much of the wealth in the local craft beer industry, but instead opt for traditional beer styles such as a Pilsner or Märzen.
To brew these styles well requires a mastery of the craft to produce a simple elegance in flavor. A brewer who possesses a refined palate and appreciation for the difficulty of this craft recognizes the skill behind a well-produced lager or other Old World–style beer. It requires a clear knowledge of the style category and appreciation for its history.
Most young craft beer drinkers are still learning to appreciate the styles and centuries-old legacy that built the movement they benefit from now. Keim sees drinkers who were raised on big American IPAs—a blip of a trend in the grand timeline of brewing—and notices that their palates are biased from experiencing only the extreme version of the style.
Keim says, “You get raised on these big IPAs and suddenly you have a British IPA and say, ‘What is this, it’s watery?’ Well, no, what you were drinking was over the top. I just want everybody to stay open to different things.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to craft beer, either. Keim says he saw a similar trend in the wine industry. In the new craft beer drinker’s defense, Old World–style beer is not an easy niche to cut your teeth on in this market. In the modern beer climate, hops dominate IPAs, lactose finds its way into nearly every beer release, and balance is a quality more befitting of your dad’s beer fridge—not yours.
That isn’t to say those trends are ruining the beer industry. But, there was a gap in the beer market for the styles you’ll find at Yoerg: doppelbock, Vienna lager, Märzen, Czech dark lager, and dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels from several Trappist monastery breweries, among others.
Keim reflects, “The way the market is right now, most imported beers go through either a Miller or Budweiser distributor, which is why all the local pubs carry the same exact imports. The result is that there are very few independent beer distributors left in the country.” Keim aimed to fill the Minnesota market’s need for great imported Old World beers that weren’t being represented. Yoerg’s beer list is filled with brands many drinkers have never encountered before, such as Brauerei Jever, Kloster Weltenburg, Brauerei Pinkus-Muller, Praga, Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Dinkelacher, and Früh.
Keim was prepared for the challenge of developing this niche in Minnesota. When he returned stateside, he built a career in the beverage industry, focusing nearly exclusively on wines. He had spent decades as a wine importer and running top-tier wine programs all over the country. During his wine trips, though, he always found a way to continue to pursue the interest in beer he developed as a young serviceman in Germany.
After craft beer grew in popularity in the 1980s, Keim saw his opening to make a shift towards the beer he had fallen in love with years ago in Germany. In the ‘90s, he helped start All Saints Brands, a craft beer importer that represented European icons such as La Trappe and Tripel Karmeliet. One of the owners of All Saints Brands is the now-owner of Black Stack Brewing in St. Paul. Keim was no stranger to any part of the business: from front of house experience to the intricacies of the import model to the historical and stylistic appreciation for European beers, Keim’s whole career seems to have led him to Yoerg.
But why open a brewpub with such an emphasis on imported beer and wine? “I thought the market needed it. I don’t care if a bar has 150 tap handles or 10 tap handles, everybody is carrying the same beers. We needed something different in this market—we needed something a little more trailblazing.” As for why he revived the historic Yoerg brewery brand, Keim’s reasoning lands somewhere between homage and nostalgia. Yoerg was originally established in Minnesota in 1848, a decade before Minnesota gained statehood, and was rooted in German brewing tradition.
While resurrecting the history of Yoerg’s influence and aesthetic inside the brewpub, Keim is also working to brew the original recipes. Along with the help of a brewing consultant from Munich, he recreated many of the original Yoerg recipes, even sourcing barley from the same area that Yoerg did 120 years ago. At one point, Keim had to call on a retired brewer from Anchor Steam, who started steam brewing nearly 50 years after Yoerg did, for advice on yeast. With some determination and elbow grease, the brewpub is now producing their own dunkelweizen, hefeweizens, Pilsners, and rauchbiers using all Bavarian ingredients.
Who is frequenting the barstools now that Yoerg is reviving Minnesota’s import scene? The clientele is defined by the products and price points—the wide range of food options under $10 and reasonable wine bar are a draw, yet the brewpub has some of the most expensive beers in the state. Building an import company to support a niche brewpub and bringing rare beers across the ocean is not an inexpensive venture, but for the Yoerg consumer, it’s worth it.
While an $18 mug of a centuries-old recipe doesn’t draw the same clientele as a new beer release with three-plus adjuncts, there’s still room for growth in this part of the market. As long as the new craft beer consumer is open to experience and is willing to appreciate the subtlety and balance of centuries-old brewing traditions, they are in for a treat. Keim reminds us all that “It will cost you hundreds of dollars to get a glass of the world’s greatest wine, but less than $10 to get a glass of the world’s greatest beer.”
And now, it’s right in our backyard, too.